Though its obituary was written a generation ago, abstraction is back with a vengeance in contemporary art. This week, I’ll look at a set of four solos and a small group effort at Robischon Gallery, along with a super-simpatico solo at Rule Gallery.
The festivities at Robischon begin with Don Voisine, which focuses on this Brooklyn-based artist’s strikingly elegant neo-minimalist paintings. He’s been doing this kind of thing since the 1970s — meaning that his oeuvre isn’t a revival of minimalism, but rather is directly rooted in an earlier phase of the movement.
These paintings, which feature dominating black fields held in place by bars and wedges of lighter colors around the edges, have an architectonic character. This is no accident, as Voisine began on this course of work with paintings based on floor plans of spaces in which he lived and worked. He still uses this compositional formula, but his pieces are freed from any reference to actual spaces. The mostly smallish, hard-edged paintings that fill the front rooms of the gallery are simultaneously bold, thanks to the generous use of black, and subtle, because the artist has added all but invisible surface effects that contrast matte and gloss finishes.
Next up is Ted Larsen: Handmade Mechanicals. If Voisine is pushing forward the vocabulary of classic minimalism, Larsen is subverting it. That’s because Larsen, who lives in New Mexico, contrasts geometric forms — the minimalist reference — with very un-minimalist surfaces of pre-painted found metals and wood. That means the work is post-minimalist.
Most of the Larsens are wall-mounted bas-reliefs that fall into several discrete categories. There are those made up of volumes with radial corners, such as “Motor Mouth,” a clutch of arching forms, or “Rolling Stop,” a lineup of racetrack ovals. Another group uses ganged polygons, triangles or rectilinear shapes, as in the “Approach Angle” set of pieces, which are each made of a conjoined pair of solid triangles, one black and the other white. Though small, they are really striking. The only sculpture in the show is “Modern Technology,” a smart-looking but precariously leaning stack of colored rectangles.
The Larsen show gives way to Jason Karolak, which is dedicated to the handsome abstractions of this Brooklyn-based artist. These paintings feature linear compositions carried out freehand, meaning that the lines that make up the compositions aren’t hard-edged. This, and the fact that the lines are only straight-ish as opposed to stock straight, adds an expressionist aspect to the paintings; as a result, these pieces, like Larsen’s, exemplify post-minimalism.
Most of the Karolaks feature dense grounds in various shades of black. The patterns give the illusion of three-dimensionality; done in vibrant, toned-up and even fluorescent colors, they stand out against the recessive grounds. In “Untitled P-1508,” Karolak conjures up a maze of lines that suggest a form consisting of various solid structures that, because they are inconsistent in places, could only exist in the imagination. These structures have an architectural quality that the artist ascribes to the urban environment in which he lives. The tangle of lines used to make them is done in broken colors — so a line might start out in blue but then suddenly change to orange. These color shifts are unpredictable and occur not at joint lines, but at mid-line. This, along with the structural inconsistencies of the shapes, adds to the unreality of the central form. I thought these Karolak paintings were stunning.
The last of the solos at Robischon is Deborah Zlotsky, which features lyrical paintings made up of dense arrangements of shapes; the shapes are related to one another within individual paintings, but not across the whole of body of pieces. Zlotsky, who lives in New York, has written that she’s interested in systems and languages of visual relationships, which explains why certain shapes are repeated while others seem to emerge out of them through a kind of morphing.
In “Conveyor,” two parallel stacks of shapes with rounded margins rise on a narrow vertical panel. Some, like “Jamais vu,” express the illusion of three-dimensionality, with a tangle of shapes seeming to form a knot of sorts. One of my favorites is the monumental “Everything which is yes,” an oil on canvas. Running across the horizontal panel is an elaborate set of connected shapes based on triangles done in strong shades of orange, pink, yellow, green and other colors. The contrast between the familiar geometric shapes and the expressive handling of the paint is wonderful.
In some sense, Zlotsky’s oeuvre is much less minimalist than the works of Voisine, Larsen or Karolak. But they are also related. Zlotsky uses linear volumes to make her pictures, but at the same time, she pushes the expressionist elements of her approach — the drips, for example, and her overtly painterly approach, in which the brushwork is often visible. So these pieces have as much to do with updating abstract expressionism as they do with critiquing minimalism.
As a kind of chaser for this quartet of solos, Robischon is presenting a small, untitled group show that also features artists working in contemporary abstraction. It begins with a single piece by Jae Ko, of Washington, D.C. “JK 759” is one of her classic wall reliefs made up of dyed and stretched adding-machine tape.
Denver’s Derrick Velasquez is also represented by one of his signature works, “Untitled 105.” In this wall sculpture, Velasquez has mounted an oak board vertically, with stacked strips of black vinyl draped on either side. Gravity helps the piece find its specific form; the blackness of the vinyl lends it a somberness that is almost funereal.
Finally, there are three new works by Kate Petley, who lives in Longmont. Petley is best known for her cast-resin panels that sport simple abstract compositions. But in these recent works, which are very different, she photo-scans her resin pieces, makes digital prints, mounts them on canvas and then paints over them. In a sense, they are an examination of abstract expressionism, violating its basic tenet by reproducing the freely conceived imagery of the originals.
Over at Rule Gallery, there’s a show, Pard Morrison: Hypnagogia, that is clearly related, stylistically, to the work at Robischon. Morrison, who lives in Colorado Springs, is well known for his minimalist-related sculptures and wall panels. For this show, he has created a suite of flat bas-reliefs that play with the concept of three-dimensionality; in some places, he refers to it with imagery, in others with actual depth.
Here’s how it works: Morrison cuts out of a sheet of aluminum that is a two-dimensional silhouette of a three-dimensional pattern he’s drawn. The pattern is built from connected cubes, but since it’s a silhouette, the results are flat and not three-dimensional. The sheet is then decorated with a fired pigment that is mostly one color. Then, in certain specific places, Morrison renders cubic shapes in pigment; where these shapes border the edges of the aluminum sheet, they have been filled in with extra pieces of aluminum so that those spots are actually three-dimensional.
The Morrison show looked like a lost room from Robischon, reinforcing the point that contemporary abstraction is going strong right now.
Voisine, Karolak, Larsen and Zlotsky
Through July 3 at Robischon Gallery, 1740 Wazee Street, 303-298-7788, robischongallery.com.
Pard Morrison: Hypnagogia
Through June 27 at Rule Gallery, 3254 Walnut Street, 303-800-6776, rulegallery.com.